Analysis: Why we must name all drone attack victims (Woods)

Chris Woods writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Sunday’s death of Fahd al-Quso in a CIA drone strike was a significant US success. The admitted al Qaeda bomber had long been sought for his role in the deadly attack on the US navy ship the USS Cole back in 2000.

At the Bureau we logged al-Quso’s name – along with his nephew Fahed Salem al-Akdam – in our Yemen database. Another two names added to the many hundreds we’ve now recorded for the US covert war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau has so far identified by name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

A day earlier, a CIA strike in Pakistan also killed around ten people. Here the information was less clear, with reports vague about who had died. While most claimed that a militant training camp had been struck, a single source claimed those killed were ‘local tribesmen.’ This clearly needs further investigation.

Although we’re not alone in recording US covert drone strikes, the Bureau also tries to identify by name all of those killed – both civilian and militants. And those names – which the Bureau recently presented at a Washington DC drone summit – reveal some startling truths about the US drone campaign.

To date in Pakistan, we have been able to identify 170 named militants killed by the CIA in more than 300 drone strikes. Among them are many senior figures, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban; Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda linked strategist; and Nek Mohammed, once a militant thorn in Pakistan’s side.

Certainly these drone strikes have severely affected the ability of militants to operate openly in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The recently-declassified ‘bin Laden papers’ talk of the impact of the CIA’s attacks, with the Taliban ‘frankly exhausted from the enemy’s air bombardments.’

Yet there’s a darker side to this coin. The Bureau has also been able to name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

On October 30 2011, for example, we know that the CIA killed four chromite miners in Waziristan – foreman Saeedur Rahman, and miners Khastar Gul, Mamrud Khan and Noorzal Khan. And on July 12 last year, field researchers working for the Bureau found that drones returned to attack rescuers, killing four Taliban and four civilians we named as Shabbir, Kalam, Waqas and Bashir.

US Lists
We’re not alone in keeping lists of the covert war dead. Just a few days ago, the Washington Post reported that ‘U.S. officials have said that more than 2,000 militants and civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere since Obama took office in 2009.’

The Bureau’s data indicates that between 2,300 and 3,290 people have died in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia strikes under Obama.

Given that the Bureau’s base estimate for the total killed in Pakistan drone strikes is close to the CIA’s own, what clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Since we began publishing our reports on civilian deaths from drone strikes, the US intelligence community has aggressively sought to attack our findings. Our media partners have been leaned on. The CIA claimed that we were getting our information from a ‘Pakistani spy’ (a barrister representing drone strike victims). And when we definitively showed, with the Sunday Times, that the CIA had been bombing rescuers and funeral-goers, it was suggested that we were ‘helping al Qaeda.’

What clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Redefining ‘civilian’
At stake may be the very definition of a ‘civilian’ in the modern battlefield. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos recently pressed US chief counter terrorism adviser John Brennan on his remarkable claim in June 2011 that the CIA had not killed ‘a single non-combatant in almost a year.’

In reply, Brennan said that ‘over a period of time before my public remarks [that] we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed.’

John Brennan - Flickr/The White HouseEven a cursory examination of credible media reports between June 1st 2010 and June 29 2011 (when Brennan made his original claim) shows that dozens of civilians were reported killed in that period. Among those who died were more than 40 tribal elders and villagers in a single disastrous CIA strike in March 2011. That attack led to public protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief.

Perhaps the CIA’s own human intelligence-gathering abilities are so poor in Pakistan that it can no longer identify civilians killed on the ground. Perhaps the Agency has been misleading Congress and the President about the true extent of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the very definition of civilian may have been radically changed. If the latter is true – and it seems the most likely scenario – then this has worrying implications.

New phase
The covert drone war appears to be entering a new phase. Until recently, strikes were carried out with the tacit co-operation of host governments. But now Islamabad is saying no. Recent CIA strikes in Pakistan have been publicly condemned by the government as being ‘in total contravention of international law.’ The strikes are carrying on regardless.

Yemen’s new president appears more pliant. Yet in a little-reported comment, the nation’s prime minister Muhammad Salem Basindwa recently told a local newspaper: ’The government has never asked the US to carry out drone attacks on the Yemeni soil because there should not be external meddling in Yemen’s own affairs.’

Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.

Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna, a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30?

By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed – not just the bad guys.

Follow @chrisjwoods on Twitter

Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Responses | Print |

9 Responses

  1. In addition to the names of those killed, we should know their ages and gender and whatever else we can learn. We should see photos of them. If we are killing children, pregnant women, and old folks , we need to know that, and be reminded of it often.

  2. A rhetorical question: Would the United States tolerate armed Cuban drones seeking and taking out terrorists among their exile community in Miami even if there were no civilian casualties?

    • There have been plenty of suspicious deaths in the Cuban exile community but brazenly open homicide by Castro agents is something that is unknown withing American boundaries.

      Former Cuban president Carlos Prio was shot to death in Florida in what was ruled a suicide while Congressional investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations were about to question him.

      Former Cuban congressman Eladio Del Valle was killed as he was about to be questioned by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office in the Clay Shaw investigation. That homicide remains unsolved.

      But no, no confirmed killings by Castro’s agents in the U.S.

      • The deaths you name were both assassinations of people related to the Kennedy assassination, which was done by a conspiracy that large segments of the United States government have wanted covered up. The perps of that assassination are the ones to look to, and that was obviously not Castro’s agents.

        Had Castro’s people been involved, there would not have been the great pains over all these years to cover it all up; there’s not that much of a constutency in the US government to cover up for any crimes Castro might commit. Moreover, my father was sent by John Kennedy to work out a deal with Castro in 1963, and they were making good progress. Not Castro but the enemies of Kennedy’s new policy of winding down the Cold War would have wanted Kennedy dead for that, apart from all the other evidence.

  3. “Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success.”

    And justification for torture was that “it worked.” Is this who we are? We now justify actions not on moral grounds, but on whether or not they achieve our desired purpose.

    • Yeah, “reported success.”

      And let’s remember who does the “reporting,” again, and dare “we” asks against what measure are the “outcomes” of those random “missions” are measured, and how many times have “they” flat-out lied about stuff like that? And of course the “it-worked-ness” of all that torture sure is way open to question, with a pretty strong indication that the whole Gulag-R-US exists, well, just because it exists, and it does a pretty good job of proving, in this generation as in prior millenia, “the purpose of torture is torture.” Yeah, let’s give a nice secure playpen to “patriotic sociopaths…”

      Since when does sowing dragon’s teeth constitute any part of “our desired purpose”? I’m sure you know that may not be who you and I are, but there’s a lot, too many, of “US” who are something else altogether… shameless, among other descriptors.

  4. One might wonder if the same people who brought ought the “Phoenix Program” during the Vietnam Thing rolled out the whole “Drone Program.” For sure, at least the same kind of people. “Fighting terrorists” by “being terrorists.”

    Want to get a flavor for the Counter-Insurgency Doctrine thingie? Here’s the smoke, link to, and here’s a little more of a mirror: link to

    According to MACV Directive 381-41, the intent of Phoenix was to attack the NLF with a “rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach to target key political leaders, command/control elements and activists in the VCI.”

    Heavy-handed operations—such as random cordons and searches, large-scale and lengthy detentions of innocent civilians, and excessive use of firepower—had a negative effect on the civilian population. It was also acknowledged that capturing NLF members was more important than killing them.

    And then there’s the reality:

    The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist? It’s not like you had their address and telephone number. The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, ‘Where’s Nguyen so-and-so?’ Half the time the people were so afraid they would not say anything. Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put commo wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, ‘When we go by Nguyen’s house scratch your head.’ Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, ‘April Fool, motherfu__er.’ Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members. Sometimes they’d come back to camp with ears to prove that they killed people.

    And what was the outcome of THAT pseudo-war, again? “Made in Vietnam” clothing in our signature American stores, and the US Navy doing joint operations with the Vietnamese Navy?

    Nothing to see here. Move along.

  5. What legal authority gives the CIA the right to determine who lives or dies? Where is the line to be drawn and who has discretion to order a drone assassination?

    This classic extrajudicial assassination that Israel conducts regularly. The Israeli Attorney General has the power to sign a death warrant, so the executive branch of the Israeli government can order killings by itself.

    American were shocked in 1975 when the Church Commitee revealed our government regular kills people during peace time. Why is it OK to kill Pakistani or Arab “terrorists” but the CIA has apparently never ordered the killing of an IRA or other European violent group member engaged in arguably illegal terrorist actions?

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